Climate Change initiatives and programmes: DSI & CSIR briefing
Higher Education, Science and Innovation
09 September 2022
Chairperson: Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC)
The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation in the National Assembly convened a virtual meeting for a briefing on climate change initiatives and programmes by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), and a delegation of the ACCESS Research Programme, affiliated with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Members were concerned that money allocated for research is being wasted because policymakers either do not have access to the available information or do not act on research data when it is made available to them. It was found that formal structures of government were less effective than community-based organisations in addressing the immediate needs of the KwaZulu-Natal flood victims. The DSI was of the view that an evidence-based approach to policymaking was needed and that operational capabilities must be strengthened to follow a scientific approach to solve problems caused by extreme events. A suggestion was made for town hall meetings to be hosted to create awareness in communities about more sustainable practices and to promote a holistic understanding of the environment. A proposal was made for a Science in the City approach to facilitate cooperation between citizens, policymakers and the science community.
The Chairperson duly noted that the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) was unable to join the meeting. A joint meeting would take place at a later date. She was looking forward to the sharing of information by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and ACCESS Research Programme on their contributions to climate change initiatives and research programmes.
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General (DG), DSI, indicated the presentation was aimed at sharing the portfolio of research programmes on water and waste research development and innovation (RDI) roadmaps, strategic energy and agriculture programmes, and interventions to ensure that science informs how work gets done.
Mr Imraan Patel, DDG: Research and Development Support, DSI, said the concept of Climate Change was deliberately framed as Global Change in the ten-year innovation plan, i.e. the new first decadal plan. South Africa was engineering the Global Change Research Plan (GCRP) as a priority. The distinguishing factor for global change is to integrate elements of climate change. Challenges encountered in the first ten-year plan still exist today. An integrated response was needed to equip decision-makers with information to optimise the implementation of locally organised frameworks to address global change challenges. The Department engaged with the scientific community in identifying the following four knowledge areas, i.e. understanding a changing planet, reducing the human footprint, adapting the way we live and innovating for sustainability. The four knowledge areas involved 18 themes which were being researched through various initiatives in collaboration with a range of partners in the scientific community.
Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, Deputy Director General (DDG): Socio-economic Innovation Partnerships, DSI, said water security was the focus of the Water RDI roadmap because demand might outstrip supply by 2030. It had been reported that in some areas the demand for water was already exceeding the supply. A behaviour change was needed to better prepare for water-related disasters. The Water RDI roadmap consisted of 135 funded projects. The Wader Programme involved 46 projects demonstrating new technologies to be used in municipalities. Waterboards in partnership with municipalities are targeting young people to build a cohort of young engineers. Sanitation was the focus of the Waste RDI roadmap projects. Areas of concern included biomass, food and plastic waste. The development of biodegradable plastics would potentially benefit the economy. Projects were needed to create value from wasted food. Waste from residential areas could be recycled for other purposes. Minerals from electronic waste could be reclaimed for reuse. In the circular economy, waste is the beginning of another cycle in which reused items become important for value creation.
Dr Rebecca Maserumule, Acting DDG, Socio-economic Innovation Partnership, DSI, focused on energy and agriculture strategic programmes. The Department established three energy storage facilities at the Limpopo, Western Cape and Nelson Mandela universities. The aim is to train unemployed graduates to participate in the Just Energy Transition. GeoSun Africa which provides data for small-scale grid connections and PVinsight which is involved in testing PV modules are spin-off companies from the DSI programmes at Stellenbosch and Nelson Mandela Universities respectively. The DSI was involved in a number of programmes to ensure that food sustainability was not affected by climate change. A knowledge base was created to provide farmers with information to plan better. Farmers needed support to plant climate and pest-resilient crops to counter the impact that the war in Ukraine had on wheat imports.
The DDG, Research and Development Support, DSI, said South Africa is a founding member of the Global Earth Observation System of System (GEOSS) networks. The South African research community made a valuable contribution to creating a platform for different systems to support societal benefit areas. The DSI was implementing various initiatives through a range of technology research programmes by following a broad-based approach to climate change. He called for coordination with role players to enhance the different programmes. The Department was working with the team of the Presidential Climate Change Commission in support of a just transition framework.
ACCESS Research Programme Presentation
Dr Neville Sweijd, Director, ACCESS Research Programme, CSIR, highlighted the more than 200 M.Sc and PhD students involved in the programme as a brief background. The programme had been operating for 12 years and is being funded by the DSI through the National Research Foundation (NRF). The programme was dealing with three research themes, i.e. Phase 1: Inter-institutional theme, Phase 2: Annual Cycle and Seasonality theme, and Phase 3: Consortium research leadership. Extreme events are being studied under the Annual Cycle and Seasonality research theme. The entity had a relationship of more than a decade long with Japan to forecast seasonal outbreaks, e.g. the malaria season. The impact of the climate on health is being researched in collaboration with the South African Weather Service and South African Medical Research Council. A series of online events were held during the lockdown period to discuss the seasonal effect of climate change on the Covid-19 pandemic. The World Meteorologic Organisation created a global climate change framework. The science community needed to produce useable information to, in future, limit the impact of extreme events such as the floods in KZN and Pakistan, and drought in parts of Africa.
Ms Aaliyah Shah, Deputy Chairperson, Habitable Planet Workshop (HPW) Student Committee: ACCESS, CSIR, drew attention to the fact that the historic legacy of the country continues to create barriers for black/female students to graduate and contribute to the Knowledge Economy. South Africa, therefore, does not have enough science researchers to deal with the climate change catastrophe. HPW follows a solution-based approach to addressing these problems. In teaching Earth Systems Science, HPW aims to provide an alternative perspective to inspire young South Africans to become interested in science by focusing on the uniqueness of South Africa for Science Research.
Ms Xivutiso Maluleke, HPW Excellence Award Winner 2022: ACCESS, CSIR, said HPW was focusing mainly on undergraduate workshops in locations all over the country. Interventions at schools involve nationwide student-led holiday programmes. Leadership programmes entail training student lecturers to support the undergraduate workshops and the roll-out of mini-HPW programmes at schools and providing project management training and experience as a local organising committee. Based on testimonials of participants, the programme is described as fun, productive, inspiring, innovative and unique.
The Chairperson invited the DG, DSI, to make further comments.
Dr Mjwara appreciated the attempt to connect science with policymakers. It was his ambition to have townhall meetings to facilitate engagements between citizens and the science community and to highlight the contribution of the ACCESS Programme.
Dr Sweijd encouraged Members of the Committee to participate in the online programmes and to register for the online courses.
The Chairperson replied that there might be a possible uptake of his offer as the Content Advisor wished to become a student of Dr Sweijd. She found the concept of exploring the relationship between climate trends and their effect on children, as explained in terms of A little theory, interesting. Inter-departmental relationships should enable the flow of information through the system. For example, research should translate into the Department of Health using research results to benefit clinics in rural areas. She asked if the indicators for weather patterns allowed for predictions to be made. The class reality of the country meant that communities respond differently to climate change. According to the Minister of Human Settlements, it was a matter of settlement planning and not housing. The struggle to influence the space reinforced the idea of integrating the different spheres of government and highlighted the importance of having joint committee meetings.
Mr W Letsie (ANC) welcomed the proper presentations and the inclusion of young females as participants in this meeting. He complimented Dr Sweijd for his lecturing skills and for explaining complex matters in simple terms. He would join the programme if he had the time. He supported the idea of interacting with students. He wanted to know if the Rugby World Cup Sevens events being hosted in Cape Town from 9 to 11 September 2022 would be observed for trends in diseases and when observation results would be released. He asked how all the climate change strategies and plans (instruments) would be coordinated within the structures of different departments. He wanted to know if the end-users had an understanding of the true impact of these instruments. He asked if the Climate Change Bill would be drawing the instruments together or make some of them redundant. He enquired about the key aspects of the Bill and how it had been received. He asked what the priorities were of the SADC region for the COP27 conference scheduled to take place in Egypt in November 2022. He wanted to know what lessons informed the new framework of the DSI Decadal Plan. He asked what the approximate investment in the Global Change Research Plan (GCRP) was. He commended the department for understanding their role very well and for never disappointing the Committee with their presentations.
Mr B Yabo (ANC) advocated for the DSI to become a transversal department and to be located in the office of the Presidency because the work affected a number of other departments. The growth trajectory in many aspects might improve if the DSI is positioned as an APEX department. He was particularly interested in the Circular Economy topic. It would be ideal to create a zero-waste economy, especially in the mining space, where slag had recently been declassified as waste to generate economic in the construction industry. He suggested that an outcry was needed to promote waste material in order to grow the circular economy. There was more ground to cover considering the current waste conversion rate of only 7%. He applauded the seminal work being done in this space. The Department was demonstrating that it was putting shoulders to the wheel. This example should be followed by all service delivery departments to grow the circular economy beyond the current rate of 7%.
The Chairperson remarked that conversations of a more political nature were needed in terms of international agreements and climate change policies. She would invite the Department to join a meeting when the political office bearers are present. She observed that initiatives such as reusing and recycling, and litter pick-up campaigns become trendy for a while but do not relate to sustainable projects. She argued that initiatives should be more impactful through interventions dealing with pollution to create sustainable environments. The town hall gatherings may provide opportunities to create awareness about how multi-faceted the solutions are and to move past the trends to more sustainable practices. We learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic that wearing masks reduces the risks of spreading the disease. She wanted to know if it would help to wear a mask to lessen the spread of flu.
Dr Sweijd replied that the CSIR was not observing the Rugby World Cup Sevens event because it was not a climate but a medical-orientated question. The idea was to organise the medical community with all other role players to engage government departments and sectors across disciplines. In addressing the question about mask-wearing, he said it would help to wear masks in the flu season as it proved to be effective during the lockdown period. In his view, the DSI presented the perfect platform to better coordinate strategies and policies within the structures of different departments.
Mr Patel said the GCRP was outdated because the Department had gone beyond the envisaged water security and waste management initiatives. The focus shifted toward areas of understanding climate strategies. To this end, the Department was working with the Presidential Climate Change Commission. There was a need to use an evidence-based approach to policymaking. The HSRC had done some research on evidence-based policymaking and a significant amount of literature on the topic is available. Strengthening operational capabilities to follow a scientific approach, was the solution to matters that do not follow a logical progression. During the KZN floods, it was found that formal structures were less effective than formal structures in addressing the immediate needs of flood victims because community-based organisations gathered data through WhatsApp groups. The Decadal Plan was multi-faceted because matters need to be approached in a systemic fashion with a holistic understanding of the environment. Interfacing with other departments was a learning curve which the DSI was hoping to strengthen during the course of next year. In response to the question about the GCRP investment, he estimated that the amount ranged between R600 and R700 million, excluding energy. He was confident that the return on investment over an average period of ten years was twice or even thrice worth the value. He was grateful that interaction with social partners had been strengthened over the past six months. For example, NEDLAC made enquiries about linking communities with investment opportunities. He replied to Mr Letsie that he was not aware of the current status of the Climate Change Bill.
Dr Henry Roman, Director: Environmental Services and Technology, DSI, explained the purpose of the Circular Economy is to keep resources at the highest economic value for as long as possible. Waste reuse and recycling represented only 12% of what had been extracted from waste management resources. Transitioning to a circular economy requires a reconfiguration of resource flows throughout the economy. The goal is to design products that can be repurposed. He remarked that the circular economy is above 7% for most countries on the African continent. The global rate was 9%. He advised that the 7% rate for South Africa was based on incomplete data. The declassification of hazardous materials could contribute to the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Reducing the dumping of waste at landfills could assist in the decrease of carbon emissions. The CSIR completed a body of work to determine the impact of the shift in transitioning the current economy.
Dr Maneshree Jogmohan-Naidu, Director, Agribiotech, said 2.9 million agricultural hubs existed in provinces with the lowest levels of access to basic services. In the context of climate change, provinces should carefully consider the type of crops that should be planted. It was important from a nutrition perspective, to ensure knowledge-based guidance to enable the adaptability of farmers in the short term. For example, the KZN Small Holder’s Association was providing training to communities on climate variability. Rotational trends in winter and summer crops are being studied to develop long-term predictive models.
Dr Mjwara said the Department was continuously working on optimising the science policy. He acknowledged that although the quality of science was good, the strategies and policies needed to be reviewed because it was not helping to solve problems. In addressing the money issue, he posed a question about what the costs would have been in terms of lives saved during the KZN floods if scientific modelling had been used. He advocated for town hall discussions to engage communities and create awareness in terms of a Science in the City approach. The Department had an obligation to share information with the public who was funding the work of the DSI officials. The Department would continue to work on new sources of energy to ensure a just transition. He was hoping to hear from the Committee on mechanisms to engage in some of the work that the Department was doing.
Chairperson’s closing remarks
The Chairperson wanted to know why people who should be aware of the research being done, are not informed of the available information. She also wanted to know why people were not acting on information that is brought to their attention. She expressed interest in the Committee to be provided with access to data centres to observe how data received is translated into usable information in terms of monitoring trends and patterns. She was concerned about the health risk posed by dilapidated infrastructure and the burning of waste in the Johannesburg CBD. The situation should not be normalised. She asked if the DSI could initiate research in this regard to activate action. She wanted to know if the NRF could sustain the number of research projects that needed to be done to address the multiple challenges facing the country. The transition of research to directly impacting government decisions should come to life at some point. She was impressed by the inclusion of young people in this meeting and called for future engagements with other entities to be conducted in the same way.
The adoption of minutes of previous meetings would be dealt with in the next meeting.
The meeting was adjourned.
Mkhatshwa, Ms NT
King, Ms C
Letsie, Mr WT
Mahlatsi, Ms KD
Yabo, Mr BS
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